College of Engineering & Mines

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All was not lost in the fire

International graduate student finds genuine compassion through homeless program co-administered by UND’s TRIO programs

Derek Sporbert, Wendy Dahlberg, Skyler Berdahl
Derek Sporbert (from left), Wendy Dahlberg and Skyler Berdahl work together to help young people through the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program Grant. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Editor’s noteIn the UND LEADS Strategic Plan, the Equity core value calls on the University to “reduce barriers to higher education by increasing affordability through scholarships, need-based aid, and Open Educational Resources,” and to “invest in support services with the aim of boosting retention and degree completion.”

As the story below shows, UND’s TRIO programs help fulfill those goals by providing one of the most important support services of all: assisting eligible UND students with housing insecurity needs. 


A UND international graduate student had been in America for only three months last August, but she was ready to set the world on fire with new discoveries in engineering.

Thousands of miles away from her family in Nigeria, the high-achieving student never could have imagined that another kind of fire would strike first, leaving her homeless and knocking her dreams temporarily off course. (UND Today agreed to grant the student anonymity for this story.)

On the day of the kitchen fire, she was tired and exhausted after working on a term paper and being awakened several days in a row — and at all hours of the night — by a faulty fire alarm in her apartment.

“I stepped out of the apartment to breathe because my brain was really busy,” the student explained. She wanted to take a short walk but soon returned to find flashing lights, firefighters and her neighbors huddled once again outside the off-campus eight-plex.

“The police officers were asking me questions, but I couldn’t even remember my name,” she said. “I just have this memory flash of seeing the fire and I’m like, ‘What just happened?’”

Now she was homeless, and “I started screaming and crying because this was me — in another country, and not even in the space of one year.”

‘A North Dakota without homelessness’

But all was not lost in the fire.

The student is one of 40 people in the four-county region — including Grand Forks, Walsh, Pembina and Nelson counties — to have been helped by the relatively new Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development.

The two-year, $400,000-plus grant was awarded by the state to the Grand Forks Housing Authority, but it also is partly administered through UND’s TRIO programs and Grand Forks Public Schools.

North Dakota had requested federal funding after a 2021 needs assessment found that more than 1,100 youth and young adults were engaged in the “homelessness system.” Youth and young adults, in this case, are defined as people 25 and younger who are unaccompanied by parents, guardians or caretakers and living in emergency shelters, hotels/motels or on the street. It also covers assistance for young people exiting juvenile detention centers, jails or the hospital. Administrators say they can help people who are “at risk of experiencing homelessness” as well.

As director of UND’s TRIO Programs, Derek Sporbert said he was invited to some of the state’s preliminary meetings in Bismarck to gauge interest in writing a federal grant request. TRIO seemed a natural fit because of its existing involvement with high school students throughout the region as well as Grand Forks Public Schools, Sporbert said. The three groups then collaborated and decided to house the grant under the Housing Authority.

Together, they named the program Youth/Young Adult Homeless System Navigation and defined its vision:

“We strive for a North Dakota without homelessness. By bringing together youth experience and stakeholder expertise, we envision a North Dakota where all youth are offered supportive services whenever needed. We look to abolish all forms of social injustice. We envision a community where youth homelessness is nonexistent.”

Further, the program’s mission states that it will create a community where young people will help lead the conversation to make homelessness “rare, brief and nonrecurring.”

The grant, which since has been extended two years, certainly lived up to the bill in this student’s case.

Help seemed a world away

Unable to return to her apartment, the student said she felt devastated, lost and alone. Three months in a foreign country was far short of enough time to build any sizable social circle for support. And because the fire destroyed her laptop, phone and bank cards, she not only was unable to contact her family, she also was cut off from any immediate personal source of money. International students are not allowed to work off campus, she explained, and her last check for her UND job as a teaching assistant amounted to $100.

“I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I was stranded,” the student said. “The next day, I still was shaking, and my head was in the clouds. Everything was looking like it was not in my favor, and I just wanted someone to reach out to me and not blame me.”

After spending the night on a neighbor’s couch, the student got up and started to do the only thing she could think to do: cross campus and knock on doors. It was summer and campus was eerily quiet, she said, but she finally reached the door of Sporbert at TRIO.

“I immediately told him what happened, and he didn’t waste three seconds before grabbing his keys and driving me to Best Buy to buy me a phone,” she said. As an international student, she had no transportation of her own, so Sporbert also used his truck to help her find secondhand furniture and pick up other necessities.

Soon, he also introduced her to Wendy Dahlberg, the administrator of the Community Housing Navigation program at UND’s TRIO offices.

“She was my guardian angel,” the student said. “Miss Wendy was always there for me. She was really kind and dragged me anywhere I needed to go. She also was very receptive to learning about my culture, and that is uncommon to find. Most people can be, ‘Oh, let me just act like I care and just get this done and out of the way.’ But no, Miss Wendy genuinely cared. It was like I had a mom who was not my mom. She gave me a safe space and said, ‘Girl, calm down.’ She is very, very funny. Every moment I spend with her, we end up laughing.”

Besides housing assistance, the program helped her with food and medical/dental expenses. And they hooked her up with the Chester Fritz Library to get a replacement laptop. Another work friend saw the fire story on the news and immediately rushed home to collect some clothing for her. And she connected her to counseling services at UND, too.

The student said she was extremely grateful for all the kind help she received at UND, specifically calling out Manuela Gabriel, director of the UND International Center; Art Malloy, vice president for Student Affairs; and Cassie Gerhardt, associate vice president for Student Affairs, to name just a few.

Sporbert said that people don’t ordinarily think of homelessness on a college campus.

“It’s a hidden homelessness,” he said. “It’s a unique situation being on a college campus, but I can tell you in my 20-some years here, I’ve worked with a number of students who, after talking to them and getting to know them a bit, you come to realize they’re homeless — they might be couch-surfing, have housing insecurities or are in a domestic situation and need help.”

“Not every person experiencing homelessness is sitting on the corner with a sign,” Dahlberg added. “There are some pretty negative stereotypes out there, and we’re passionate about breaking them. That’s necessary to foster the kind of compassion and empathy that’s needed to help people.”

As far as the student’s successful future, it’s back on track.

“I will always love TRIO,” she said. “They gave me peaceful, calming reassurance when I needed it most. They were my second family. They were hope in a very dark tunnel.”

>> DO YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW NEED HELP? At UND, contact Wendy Dahlberg at 701.777.3287 (w), 701.317.8589 (c) or In Grand Forks Public Schools, contact Skyler Berdahl at 701.746.2205, ext. 7098 (w), 218.779.6485 (c) or

>> YOU CAN LEARN MORE: Dahlberg and Berdahl do community outreach to educate people about youth homelessness. They hosted their first “Under the Stars Hunger & Homelessness Simulation” in April. The event was geared toward sixth- through 12th-graders in the community and region. It was so well-attended that they plan to do another event next year.

>> QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS about the UND LEADS Strategic Plan? Your thoughts are welcome! Please contact Angie Carpenter, UND’s director of Special Student Populations, and/or Ryan Zerr, associate vice president for Strategy & Implementation, the co-chairs of the UND LEADS Implementation Committee.

You also may offer your thoughts by visiting the UND LEADS Strategic Plan home page and clicking on the “Provide your feedback” link that you’ll find there.

Thank you for your support of the UND LEADS Strategic Plan!


Written by Janelle Vonasek  //  UND Today